March 2005 ISSUE

A Conversation with Jody Denberg:
Program Director, 107.1 KGSR Radio Austin
Where the Music Comes First!
By Bill Vordenbaum


Right: Jody in Yoko's kitchen, 10/6/04

Intro:
Music and radio have always been a part of my life. From as early as 1970, I can remember hearing the Beatles or Johnny Cash for the first time on AM radio. I grew up between San Antonio and Austin, TX. I can remember listening to KTSA (AM 550) in San Antonio, and KNOW (AM 1490) in Austin. In the evenings, I could pick up WLS (890 AM) in Chicago, and X-Rock 80 (XEORK 800 AM, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, MX). During the '70's, AM Top Forty radio was king.

By 1980, FM radio had taken over. It continues to be the most popular format for music, while AM has become mostly talk. Although most radio has become homogenized, there are a few exceptions to the typical corporate radio musical fare. 107.1 KGSR has remained an anomaly to corporate radio for over fourteen years. A few weeks ago, I spoke with Jody Denberg about how KGSR has helped keep Austin radio unique:

E.C.: Jody, you originally came to Austin from New York, is that right?

Jody: I actually spent a little time in El Paso…a couple of years. I moved from New York to El Paso.

E.C.: Did you go to the University of Texas?

Jody: Yeah, I went to UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso) for one year, and then I went to UT Austin for four years.

E.C.: I know you were a DJ at KLBJ-FM during the '80's, what did you do before then?

Jody: I actually started my first show at KLBJ-FM in March of 1981 while I was still in college.

E.C.: Were you doing an internship?

Jody: I'll give you the story if you want…..

E.C.: Sure, just briefly!

Jody: I was writing a column at the Daily Texan with Louis Black who is now the editor of the (Austin) Chronicle. We wrote a column together. At the end of 1980, KLBJ-FM was going through a major format adjustment. They were more of a free-form station and they were morphing into an AOR station.

[Note: Around 1981, Chuck Dunaway became the Program Director for KLBJ-FM. He removed all local music from the control room. He wanted the station to promote artists who would sell out arenas, not play to a hundred or so fans at a club on Sixth Street. While I may see Chuck as little more than a corporate radio slug, he made an impact on the station. One, I believe helped make the creation of 107.1 KGSR possible.]

Jody: I wrote some columns with Louis that were critical of what they were doing and essentially they said, if you guys know so much, why don't you do your own show!? So they started a show called Critics Choice on Sunday mornings in March of '81. I did one, Louis Black did one, Margaret Moser did one. I think the late Jeff Whittington did one, I believe Ed Ward did one as well. Then they called me back and said we really like your show, would you like to do it on a regular basis? So, I sold out!

E.C.: Right….

Jody: Then, I did like this put me in coach kind of deal and picked up shifts. After about four-and-a-half years, I finally got the overnight shift. That was in 1985.….

E.C.: That's when I started listening to KLBJ-FM. One of the things I remember most about your time at KLBJ-FM was in 1989. On April Fool's Day, that concert hoax you guys did. Whose idea was that?

[ Note: This was an elaborate hoax involving a list of the most popular bands of the day who would be playing a free concert at a city park. It included live reports and updates from Jody, Ed Mayberry and others. It fooled many people….]

Jody: You know, I can't really say. I think it was one of those communal ideas when we were brainstorming. I know Ed Mayberry was very integral to the idea. My two greatest memories of that were Kevin Connor, who was working at another station, getting calls wanting to know what was going on. I was on the jogging trail and I got stopped by someone who said, I thought I just heard you on the radio backstage at a concert! April 1st was also the birth date of our late friend Ronnie Lane (of the Faces/Small Faces). We made him the closer of the concert. We actually listened to that at his house. The police were getting a lot of calls and it made the front page in the (Austin American-) Statesman. It was the ultimate manifestation of what you hope to do in radio -- which is theatre of the mind.

E.C.: Exactly, it was sort of like the Orson Welles ("War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938) thing done back in the '30's….

Jody: Yeah, I mean, that was something man, that was really cool…..

E.C.: As Program Director, you obviously have the final say as to what is played on KGSR. Who helps you the most in determining what gets played on the air?

Jody: Really, it's about fifty/fifty between myself and Susan Castle. She is the Music Director. She is the one who does most of the communications with the record industry. I do as well, but I try not to do as much because I have a (different) job….

E.C.: Right, right….

Jody: That is her job. So she talks to them and we meet together (she and I) every Monday night….(we have) for over fourteen years. We meet when I get off the air and listen to all the records that people are pitching us and listen to all the records that we have been hearing that we are interested in playing. We decide together. Susan and I are the team that do that.

E.C.: So it is a collaborative effort between the two of you….

Jody: Yeah, but Kevin Connor will come in and go -- man, have you heard this song by 54 Seconds? "Ben's Letter," this is really amazing! You've got to hear this! So, we bring it in to the meeting with Susan. Then, like in this case we went, man, Kevin's right! This is great! Then we start playing it.

E.C.: How important is listener input to you and the station? The Top 107 Songs and Albums of the Year for example….

Jody: The Top 107 Songs are important -- I think the things that we gage listener input on the most is -- we decide what's going on the air and by our gut, and by what people are asking us to listen to. Where the listeners come in the most is in the "Rate The Music" (online at www.kgsr.com) thing. We have between two and three hundred listeners a month come there. They say, we're sick of this song, we love this song, we hate this song….

E.C.: I've participated in that, I like the way you have all those different choices. It's not just "yes" or "no." You've got a lot of variety there….

Jody: Right! That's really the most important listener feedback that we get. When I walk into the music meeting, Susan has all the information printed up for me on a list of one to forty songs and how they are scoring in various ways. That's where we go, man, we thought this song was nothing and we're hardly playing it -- everyone loves it, let's bump it up. Or, well man, people are sick of this song….

E.C.: That's neat the way you do that!

Jody: Thank you!

E.C.: The Anniversary Party that you have -- is that strictly a KGSR venture -- or , are you involved with KLRU?

Jody: No, we pay KLRU to use their facilities. We also hire people from KLRU to help with the production. But, it is purely a KGSR event, and that was Kevin Connor's idea. When we first started it, we needed an event that was ours and we could do every year. We did it there (KLRU Austin City Limits Studios), and we continue to do it there. It is kind of hard, because the capacity there is getting smaller as the parties get more popular…

E.C.: Right….

Jody: We figure that we do fifty to a hundred concerts a year. We want to do one thing that is really special -- that is different. That's where that show comes in. But it is purely a KGSR production. We do hire KLRU people to help us with it.

E.C.: I wanted to ask you about the KGSR Broadcast Volume 12, I believe it has sold out, is that right?

Jody: There may be a copy or two floating around. What happens is, we try to put it in various stores so that it is geographically convenient for people. Waterloo (Records) sells out first. We sold 18,000 of them….

E.C.: I saw that! I was there at Waterloo Records last Friday to see Tift Merritt's in-store performance. I was looking at the Top 100 CD's sold and Broadcast Volume 12 was # 1 with over 18,000 sold at Waterloo alone. That's amazing!

Jody: …then what happens is, after Christmas, the demand dies down. So, if there are some left at other stores, we gather them up and bring them to Waterloo. It was still the # 2 seller at Waterloo this week, but I think they are just about gone. If we put more of them at Waterloo, they would totally be gone….

[ Note: I purchased two copies of Broadcast Volume 12 the Saturday after they went on sale (after Thanksgiving) at Waterloo Records. I saw Jody and John T. Kunz (owner of Waterloo Records) carefully arranging the display of the CD's.]

E.C.: ….Then other people wouldn't have a chance to get it. In San Marcos, I saw that Sundance Records had some on sale while I was doing some Christmas shopping….

Jody: Yeah, they were kind of mad at us because we didn't give them as many as last year. I really do want to get rid of them before Christmas. "A," because the goal is to sell them out which we always have, but "B," there is an accounting process that goes down so that we can give SIMS their check at the Anniversary Party. So, we want to try and get that going after the first of the year. It has pretty much sold out, some 29,000 pieces.

E.C.: That's excellent! I was just curious as to how you got involved with the SIMS Foundation on that?

Jody: The idea for the CD came back from doing them at KLBJ-FM, I did Local Licks CD's in '88 and '89.….

E.C.: So, it was even before KGSR came in to existence….

Jody: Right, but it wasn't SIMS back then. We've had various charities, we started with the Austin Children's Shelter…..I know what happened, Carlyne Majer, who was working at NARAS at the time, had asked if we would consider MusicCares, a larger national charity for musicians as a recipient for Broadcast which we did one year, at least partially. Then, when the SIMS Foundation came to light, it just seemed to make sense to keep that money here to help our local musicians. I don't really remember how the exact connection was made, but that was certainly a part of it….

[ Note: The SIMS Foundation was named in loving memory of Sims Ellison (of Pariah). He suffered from depression, and ultimately took his own life. SIMS is dedicated to helping those musicians with mental health problems who cannot afford health insurance and/or professional treatment.]

E.C.: That's great! You talked about helping charities locally, on a global scale, the Tsunami Relief Concert that KGSR helped sponsor -- how were you able to get that together so quickly?

Jody: Michael Hall at Texas Monthly called me the last week of December and wanted me to do this concert. (Unfortunately) I was getting ill, and was also getting ready to take a couple of weeks vacation. I told him that I would love to help….but, I'm dead man. I told him that he needed to call Kevin Connor. Michael called Kevin, and those two ran with it. Really, the way it came together so quickly was that Michael called Willie (Nelson) on his cell phone, Willie committed. Then once Willie commits, everyone else falls in line.

E.C.: Right, they fell in line quickly. Do you have anything new planned for 2005?

Jody: I think our mantra for 2005 is, let's have some fun! Me and Susan go on the air and we have so much music and I said, man, there's a George Harrison tribute at the Cactus (Café) today and I played "Any Road" from his Brainwashed album. So, we are really just trying to have more fun with the music….Remember that the Tsunami tragedy taught us (and any other tragedy) that life is a one-day-at-a-time deal. This isn't a rehearsal. No matter what the ups-and-downs are of the radio business, or KGSR specifically, lets have some fun!!!!

E.C.: Life is a fragile thing, that's for sure….

Jody: We all love each other here! We've all been together for the whole ride. Susan (Castle), Bryan (Beck), Kevin (Connor), me, Bobby (Ray)…. We just want to have some fun: less stress, more fun!!!! We're hoping that comes across on the radio, and we're hoping that comes across in the music.